Let's talk about the word "civilization" for a moment. It's not as fashionable a word as it used to be. Very few colleges and universities still have courses in western civilization. Most now teach world history instead--and world history often focuses on the harm the West has supposedly done to the rest of the planet. Bu tit remains an important word, in my opinion, and I've been wondering lately not only about what it means, but where the definition came from.
Here's one definition from an online Merriam Webster's dictionary:
" a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained"
We'll come back to that in a minute, but first I want to ask something different: where did the word come from? What is its root? Wikipedia, quoting a recent academic reference work, states that
"the word civilization comes from the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state," And that, it seems to me, is a more relevant angle from which to ask where the world is and where it is going.
I would suggest that this definition is indeed critical to modern western civilization, since it refers, in effect, to the establishment of civil authority capable of mobilizing the resources of society, and specifically to a civic authority as opposed to a religious one Going back to Merriam Webster, we might add that such a civilized authority relies on the written word for communication and administration, and thus requires a high degree of literacy. It also usually involves the dedication of substantial resources to the arts, and the now-dead civilizations of which we have the clearest picture left behind buildings, sculptures, and, later, paintings, all of which reflected a substantial diversion of resources to these pursuits.
Putting the artistic and political aspects of the question together for a moment, I would suggest that civilization is characterized by a certain level of devotion to an abstract polity, to law, and to a certain more or less exalted idea of the arts. Sometimes the primary objects of devotion are political, as in the Roman Empire and Greek city-states; sometimes they are religious, as they were for centuries of human history. Our modern civilization, which originated in the 17th and 18th centuries, has been characterized by a devotion to science and inquiry for their own sake. I might add that during the formative centuries of our civilization, my own profession, history, focused largely on the development of civilizations, as reflected in their political and religious behavior. The existence of a historical profession dedicated to reconstructing the past and putting it in a broader perspective with the help of original documents was itself, I would suggest, an important, and perhaps a critical, element of our civilization, which developed itself and spread in part because people could read about its past.
One might also argue that civilizations develop and persist because their political and religious leadership believes in them, and more or less insists that the rest of their nation does as well. National histories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries focused on the great achievements of their own nations--although the greatest historians, it has always seemed to me, were frequently most critical of their own nations. (One can observe this even in one of the very first works of modern history, the Athenian Thucydides's history of the Peloponesian War.) Religious authority enforces itself through religious observance, which begins in earliest childhood. Generations of western plutocrats and governments have established and maintained museums and subsidized operas and symphony orchestras. And crucially, during the last two centuries or more, the act of becoming an educated man or woman required a great deal of effort and concentration on subjects of very marginal relevance to day-to-day life, from the study of Latin and Greek to the mastery of a musical instrument., to the reading of numerous lengthy novels or plays by a single author. To be sure, every generation included some students who gladly did these things out of love, but they were the minority. Many did them out of duty--but they did them all the same.
I would argue that a combination of technology and our reverence for the economic market have severely weakened many of these traditions in modern civilization, especially in the United States. For the last half-century, devotion to a higher purpose has fallen more and more out of favor in most of the political spectrum. A good deal of our left abandoned traditional politics in the 1960s and 1970s and has never come back. As I have mentioned many times, the Left's favorite causes now focus on rights for individuals belonging to previously marginalized groups, not to the question of what we as a nation can and should do together. The right, as I have often had occasion to note, distrusts government in almost any form, and now even denies government one of its most basic powers, the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. We have allowed corporations--including financial institutions--once again to achieve power that rivals, or exceeds, that of governments. But that is not all.
It seems to me we are threatened nowadays because so few of us take our fundamental political institutions very seriously any more. How many of us--including politicians and judges--have the same commitment to the Constitution and its values as the Founding Fathers, or Lincoln and the men who fought to preserve the Union, or Franklin Roosevelt, or the Warren Supreme Court? The answer, I would suggest, is not very many, and fewer every year, because the Boom generation, now passing from power, was the last generation that had to learn much about those subjects in college. The decline of the historical profession, in my opinion, has done enormous damage to our situation. Believing, apparently, that their parents' and grandparents' legacy would assure them and their children a stable political life forever, Boomer and now Gen X historians have given up teaching political or diplomatic history, for the most part, and it shows. Barack Obama, our first Gen X President, rarely if ever makes a serious historical reference in one of his speeches. The Right has actually created an alternative version of history featuring Founding Fathers who rejected the separation of Church and State and rights to bear arms that never existed--something that would have been much harder, in my judgment, had historians been doing their job. The same thing has happened in much of the western world, even in countries where institutions still function somewhat better and more of the national budget is spent on the common good.
The written word, that cornerstone of civilization, is surely becoming much less important to daily life. College students read less and publishers publish shorter books. Newspapers are threatened with extinction. Video clips are replacing news stories as the currency of public discussion. Fewer and fewer Americans are learning foreign languages. All these things, I think, reflect declines in civilization as we have known it.
And as for the arts, they too are in a parlous state. New works of serious drama rarely apper, partly because of academic fashion. Serious fiction rarely engages the kinds of issues it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Classical music survives, but fewer and fewer American young people learn to play it. (The arts have been cut out of many school curriculums.) Television, as often noted, has been something of a bright spot in the last 10-15 years, with truly serious dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad playing a role comparable, perhaps, to novels by Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. But films are in their worst era since sound came in nearly 90 years ago. Even forty years ago, many Hollywood producers or studios used some of the profits from junk to make important films for grown-ups. Indeed, in the 1970s there was a real mass audience for true art. Now action, technology, and cartoons rule the field.
Civilization, to recapitulate, requires genuine belief in and devotion to higher political and artistic purpose. That kind of devotion is not increasing: it is declining. Intellectual change has always been an extremely potent historical force. I wonder how much of our civilization is destined to continue over the next half century.